Black Man's Burden

Ceremonies in Dark Old Men subtly explores racism and personal responsibility

"I don't rant and rave about the terror of our racist society," the playwright and screenwriter Lonne Elder III once remarked. "It is never directly stated; it's just there." Elder, who died four years ago and is probably more famous for writing the scripts to Sounder and A Woman Called Moses, kept his word in his oft-produced 1965 drama Ceremonies in Dark Old Men. His Harlem characters have a comically euphemistic name for The Enemy, The Imperialistic Other, The Colonizers who "force" them (or so they insist) into small-time organized crime ventures: Mr. You-Know-Who.

"Mr. who?" asks aging barber Russell Parker (played in the Fort Worth Jubilee Theatre production by Lloyd W.L. Barnes Jr.), oblivious to the lingo. "Mr. You-Know-Who," repeats his son Theopolis (Marcellous Hayes) ominously, eyebrows raised in a wink-wink, nod-nod, we're-all-on-the-same-page expression.

This adversary will later be explicitly, if infrequently, referred to as "the white man," but the mechanics of his injustice will not be dismantled with overt plot developments or monologues about oppression. One of the things that makes Ceremonies in Dark Old Men so unique is the way racism, just as Elder stated, is simultaneously backdrop and foreground. What we see unfold onstage with comic and tragic intensity is a reaction to unseen yet ever-present inequities, which gives it an authenticity that even a watershed script such as Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun lacks. Minorities of any category rarely feel that they are confronting "the issue" of bigotry, because institutionalized prejudice is like acid rain that soaks everybody and everything around them. If only such ubiquity could be controlled under the rubric of an "issue."

Lloyd W.L. Barnes Jr. is a Harlem barber leading an illicit life of pleasure with gal pal Shatima Wiley in Lonne Elder III's famed play about family disintegration.
Buddy Myers
Lloyd W.L. Barnes Jr. is a Harlem barber leading an illicit life of pleasure with gal pal Shatima Wiley in Lonne Elder III's famed play about family disintegration.
Lloyd W.L. Barnes Jr. is a Harlem barber leading an illicit life of pleasure with gal pal Shatima Wiley in Lonne Elder III's famed play about family disintegration.
Buddy Myers
Lloyd W.L. Barnes Jr. is a Harlem barber leading an illicit life of pleasure with gal pal Shatima Wiley in Lonne Elder III's famed play about family disintegration.

Hansberry's drama at times felt as though it were made of papier-mché taken from newspaper headlines about urban poverty, Afrocentrism, segregated housing, etc.; viewers felt removed from it in a way that doesn't happen with Ceremonies in Dark Old Men. We see rounded lives struggling, but very much living, in the square peg of a racist nation.

Jubilee Theatre's production, under the direction of youthful collaborator Juan Fernandez, emphasizes the constant face-offs of the Parker family--father against son, brother against brother, sister against all of them--to a level that is sometimes exhausting. Some early critics of the show felt that Elder relied too much on conflict rather than organic, honestly observed emotions to propel the story forward. Director Fernandez capitalizes on the sometimes physical bickering, but coming from a family where feudin' and afightin' were Olympic sports, I recognized truth in the contentious tone he establishes and rarely drops. As the play begins, the Parker family is at a crisis moment; sister Adele (Evette Perry-Buchanan) is the sole support for Russell, Theopolis, and her youngest brother, Bobby (Derrick Grant). She threatens to stop paying the $40-a-month rent required to keep daddy Russell's barbershop open unless the others get jobs. Theopolis, irked by his sister's constant nagging, proves entrepreneurial, if not exactly legitimate, in his efforts. He goes to work for Blue Haven (Kevin E. Johnson, appropriately menacing without scowling), the area's No. 1 crime boss, and eventually convinces father Russell to use his dormant barbershop to operate all manner of scams. Russell Parker takes to fast, easy cash and the Harlem club scene with a rapaciousness that swallows up his entire family.

Unfortunately, Lloyd W. L. Barnes Jr. as patriarch Parker is problematic. Whether drunk or sober, charging bent-backed with arms akimbo or spilling drunkenly to the floor when he leans too far back, Barnes is an ace at character-specific movement. But as soon as the lights come up on the first act, he barrels bullishly into his performance, a notch louder, angrier, and more gestural during his dialogue than the other actors around him. It seems inconsistent with the role as written, a benevolent dreamer who, through the course of his conscious descent into an illegally financed nightlife, rediscovers the anger at the core of his being. Parker is a classic Elizabethan tragic hero, a man who knows he is destroying himself and also knows why; blinded by rational awareness of his own irrational implosion, he can only grope for a lifeline to pull him out. Barnes works better when the play actually demands that he work himself into a lather.

He also benefits from the reflected glory of an incandescent supporting cast. Marcellous Hayes as Theopolis, the perpetual schemer who winds up the equivalent of a housebound drudge to keep the rackets moving forward, is the star of the show. He spends half of his time scamming the people around him, trying to get them to do what he wants, and Hayes has captured that quality of believing his own bullshit is the truth and the way, even if he only started peddling it five minutes ago. The always fine Evette Perry-Buchanan brings more acrid impatience than sacrificial nobility to sister Adele when she harrumphs: "Why does the black woman always have to be the family savior?!" True to that weary protest, she soon gives in and breaks down too.

Written and first staged as the '60s Civil Rights movement simmered toward a boil, Ceremonies in Dark Old Men received near unanimous praise from black and white critics, although some have complained fairly that Elder has a tendency to build characters out of stacked cards. Adele, for instance, embraces the family business rather more quickly than the role initially has you believe she would. There was also a small band of more radical African-American commentators who felt that Lonne Elder III didn't attack racism vigorously or directly enough, that he flirted with betrayal of the cause by concentrating on the question of how much responsibility the characters should take for their criminal activities. The tale-spinning, failed barber Russell Parker throws this into harsher relief by stating that there will be no polite verbal evasions for the larceny, bootlegging, and numbers-running for which his shop provides neighborhood headquarters: If they profit from crimes, he says repeatedly, they must realize that they are criminals.

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